After expanding from Paris into London, Moscow, Barcelona and St. Petersburg, the "Dans Le Noir" chain, staffed by blind waiters, will open an outlet in the neon-lit tourist hub of New York's Times Square this month.
What seemed at the outset to be just a bizarre fad, has proved surprisingly popular, as patrons who have often never encountered a visually impaired person before discover what it is like to be blind and realize how skillfully the blind adapt.
"When I started this business, everyone thought I was crazy, from my bankers to my mother," Edouard de Broglie, 49, CEO of the chain's owner, Ethik Investment, and founder of the restaurant chain, told Reuters.
"I wanted to show that a company where 50 percent of staff are very heavily handicapped can perfectly well be profitable, thrive each year and become international like any other one."
Dans Le Noir, French for "In the Dark," is not the first restaurant of its kind, although it has spread the fastest, having served more than a million people at its restaurants and temporary venues in Warsaw, Geneva and Bangkok.
Pioneer Blindekuh, German for "Blind Cow," opened in 1999 in Zurich, starting a blind-dining trend that spread to France with de Broglie's eatery and has spawned a series of copycat venues in cities around the world including Berlin, Shanghai, Montreal and San Francisco.
Dans Le Noir uses visually impaired waiters to guide patrons past heavy black curtains into a pitch-dark dining room where they are served a surprise two or three-course menu.
"It's quite brutal. You have no idea what's on your plate, your senses are completely confused. You speak louder, it's very surprising," said Jerome Linyer, 40, after a birthday dinner with friends at the Paris restaurant.
The first permanent Dans Le Noir restaurant opened in Paris in 2004, followed by London in 2006. At the time, the British tabloids were harsh, Edouard de Broglie recalls.
"They said it was a gimmick, that the food wasn't good. But, as the British say, bad advertising is advertising. Today it's our most profitable restaurant, and constantly packed," he said.
He said that Prince William and Kate Middleton had come several times to the London restaurant, noting that it may be one of the few "where they can escape from paparazzi."
Big employer of the blind
As in London, the restaurant in New York will offer four surprise menus, one entirely secret and the others tailored for meat eaters, vegetarians or fish and seafood lovers. A three-course dinner with wine starts at $56 a head.
Slightly larger than its predecessors, the restaurant can accommodate 72 guests. It is betting on steady traffic from the neighboring theatres of Times Square and will offer several services a night. It will also feature a Sunday gospel brunch.
De Broglie said the restaurant, which he sees as being a bigger success than the Paris one, was fully booked for its first three weeks.
Dans le Noir is now eyeing South America and Asia, De Broglie said, mentioning Brazil, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo and Seoul as possible target cities. De Broglie quipped that he may already be the world's biggest employer of blind people.
Ethik Investment, which also runs in-the-dark spas, donates 10 percent of its profits to charity, mainly to groups focused on helping disabled people integrate into society. It also runs corporate events to raise awareness about physical handicaps and advises companies on hiring disabled people.
"We tell people: stop hiring handicapped people to fill quotas, but try instead to see how they can be productive within your business," de Broglie said.
Mohand Touat, 46, found his first job at Dans le Noir's Paris restaurant four years ago. He heads to work cautiously, holding a white cane, but once inside he flits from table to table as diners shout for him to come and help them, "I dropped my fork" being a frequent cry.
"In the dark, we're the ones serving as guides, so we're sort of switching roles," Touat said. "I feel good here."